Superfast broadband: How fast is fast enough?

Ninety-five percent of homes and businesses in the UK can now get 'superfast' broadband, but behind that headline figure lies a lot of variation.

Video: Who's in Europe's broadband fast lane?

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Broadband at speeds of 24Mbps or faster is now available to more than 95 percent of UK homes and businesses, the government has said.

Over the last five years, the government has spent £1.7bn on extending the reach of broadband to areas that were otherwise deemed "not commercially viable" by industry, and this has seen 4.5 million UK premises -- mostly in rural areas -- gaining faster internet access.

The government also said there was a knock-on effect on local communities in the form of 50,000 new local jobs and an additional £8.9bn in turnover in the areas covered by the rollout between 2013 and 2016.

The rollout continues: around 800,000 homes and businesses were reached last year through the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme. The government has also set a target of making 10Mbps broadband availability a legal right by 2020.

A clause in the government's contracts requires suppliers to recycle funding when people take up superfast connections installed as part of the programme. Over 2.25 million homes and businesses have taken up superfast broadband in areas covered by BDUK projects. To date, BT has set aside £477m to extend coverage -- up from £292m in December 2016. The government also said that £687m is available for local authorities to re-invest in further rolling-out faster broadband.

However, while the government is pleased to have met its manifesto commitment, there is still work to do.

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The availability of 24Mbps doesn't mean that customers have actually upgraded: many will be put off by the premium pricing and will stick with lower-speed services. And there is a lot of variation behind the headline figures: in Rhonda, 99.8 percent of homes and businesses can get 24Mbps, for example, while at the other end of the scale, in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the figure drops to just 65.6 percent.

There are some other oddities too: in the Cities of London and Westminster only 68.7 percent of premises will get 24Mbps, which is below the figure for far-flung Orkney and Shetland (70.2 percent) Several London boroughs are also low down on the list, including Southwark and Bethnal Green.

Not so fast

Another issue is that while the government describes 24Mpbs as 'superfast', the EU defines it as 30Mbps. But, in reality, as we stream more video, send more pictures, and hook up more IoT devices to our networks, 24Mbps really isn't very fast at all.

So, while the idea of bringing in a legal right to 10Mbps is useful, in reality most homes and businesses will need a lot more than that. The EU already has a target of offering everyone 30Mbps by 2020.

Analysis published last year put the UK in 31st place in the world for broadband speeds, with the average connection speed of 16.51Mbps -- behind 20 European countries, 17 of which are in the EU.

The government may have hit its own target, but Andrew Ferguson, editor of thinkbroadband.com, noted that a segment of the population won't be celebrating this landmark -- namely, those in the 1.4 million premises (five percent of the total) still struggling with no speed option above 24Mbps.

"Although rural areas make up a large portion of the five percent, there are many areas within major cities also struggling with broadband speeds...Those who still have slow broadband are becoming more worried about being left behind, especially with the new full fibre promises making headlines every week."

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